Often parents share struggles that they have with their children and their eating habits. When gathering information from parents, I hear comments like, “He will only eat pasta ” or “She is so picky!” Such concerns reported by parents are not typically consistent with a DSM diagnosis for an eating disorder yet parents are struggling because a problem does exist.
Concerns expressed are more likely behavior problems rather than an eating problem, according to Deborah Kennedy, PhD, an expert in nutrition and behavior. “Picky” eating is not a diagnosis. However, picky eating is often a challenge in a lot of homes. When working with parents, I frequently reference Kennedy’s practical approach to improve children’s eating habits.
Two traits of a “picky” eater according to Kennedy are those kids that:
- Eat a limited variety of foods
- Are not open to try new foods – either refusing to eat or afraid to try
Parenting, temperament & food patterns:
All children have different tastes and preferences but we cannot ignore their temperament as contributing to their behaviors with food. Temperament plays a role in eating patterns, too. Kennedy specifies that temperament is the base for eating behaviors. Additionally, parenting styles play a large role in developing eating patterns. Authoritative parenting is the parenting style to strive for when it comes to feeding children, just as it is recommended for behavior management. Authoritative parents teach their children and establish positive eating patterns by modeling appropriately and having:
- Food rules & expectations
- Healthy food first then dessert
- New foods are tried with at least one bite
How can a psychologist help with eating patterns?
When a challenge exists, a psychologist will explore values, culture, routines and family dynamics in regards to food and eating to better understand the behaviors. A psychologist can help a family improve habits and establish consistent routines at home. A psychologist can also assist parents to improve structure as well as establish strategies to manage difficult behaviors. Lastly, a psychologist can work closely with a pediatrician and refer a family to an occupational therapist to rule out if a sensory or motor problem exists.
Written by Erica David, PsyD